Fall of Dacca
Col. Riaz Jafri (Retd)
December 16 comes every year to haunt the nation, particularly those few remaining who were witness to the debacle. I had the misfortune to be one. On this day the Quaid’s Pakistan, which was considered an epitome of ‘Divided we Stand’, was actually divided by breaking loose all bonds of unity between the two wings. That day the largest Muslim army suffered the ignominious humiliation of the greatest defeat. This was the darkest day of our national history that stunned everyone. How did it happen? Equipped with the hindsight knowledge, I will try to reconstruct some of the sad saga.
In early July 1971 I was posted to East Pakistan as the Principal Staff Officer (GSO-1) to late Major General Rao Farman Ali Khan – in charge Martial Law (Civil Affairs). In my such capacity I was more or less responsible for the Civil Administration of the Province and had the opportunity of seeing the events unfolding themselves from the vantage viewpoint of the Governor House, Dacca – the then epicentre of the entire activity in East Pakistan. I had also access to the events of the past buried in the files which kept popping up randomly during my daily official work there. This all presented me with a fairly clear picture of all that was happening there and why.
If I am asked who to blame for the debacle I would say that we were all – from the common man in the street to the highest person in the office, equally responsible for it. The common man for committing the sin of keeping himself ignorant of the under currents simmering there ever since that fateful 19th day of March 1948 when Quaid raising his admonishing finger to the Bengali students at the Dacca University convocation had warned them that Urdu will be the only official state language of Pakistan, and not trying to assess the anguish caused to the Bengalis and take measures to bring any rapprochement. The highest in authority were guilty of being too greedy, power hungry and selfish. Unfortunately we all treated East Pakistan as a colony and never granted them their justly deserved status of being the major human organ of Pakistan’s body – 54 percent of the population. As power barons of the Federal government mostly hailed from West Pakistan they never shared the power willingly or happily with their Bengali brethren. Imagine, the Bengalis though in majority going jubilant in 1956 when Suhrawardy got them ‘parity’ (equal treatment) with the West Pakistanis! Ever heard of a majority people thanking obligingly the minority people for treating them equal?! We did it again in 1971. The minority pronouncing the majority unpatriotic, traitor and secessionist! Minority forcing the majority to leave the country whose foundations they had laid in 1906! Not only, that the Bengalis were treated as unequals, but it is also a fact that they were the major revenue earner for Pakistan, mainly through the export of their Golden Fibre to Manchester and Dundee jute mills in the UK. They bore the major financial burden of Pakistan and happily too for more than 15 years and until 1962 the cash flow was from East Pakistan to West Pakistan. Thereafter, after an equilibrium of about two years the process revers ed but not that heavily. Bengalis had, therefore, every reason to be chary of and chagrin with the sala Punzabis. (every West Pakistani was a Punjabi to them). Though the Bengalis proved themselves to be equally, if not more, patriotic than the West Pakistanis during the 65 war with India, yet the state of mutual confidence between the two left more to be desired. By 1971 the relations deteriorated further and irreversibly. The last straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was Bhutto’s rejection of 1970 election results which had given Shaikh Mujib ur Rehman’s Awami League a clear cut majority to form the government at the centre. ZAB’s one after the other statements like “we will break the legs of anyone going to Dacca to attend the NA session there”, “Udhar tum idhar hum” and “I would rather be a top dog of half of Pakistan than be an underdog of full Pakistan” left little doubt in the minds of Mujib and company who opted for the Civil Disobedience in the province. Their provincial autonomy stance kept becoming harder by the day and all negotiations between them and the West Pakistani leaders and the Federal government led by Gen.Yahya himself failed. The civil disobedience had transformed itself into an outright mutiny and to quell it the army struck on the night of 25th March 1971, starting an internecine guerrilla war between the military and Mukti Bahini lasting for 8 long months. On 21st November 1971 – Eid Day – the Indians launched a fully fledged armed attack on East Pakistan which lasted for 26 days of intense fighting by the Pakistan army under extremely adverse conditions of (1) being badly out-numbered in men and material – 3 Indian Corps’ against one and that too lame, under-strength and ill equipped, no tanks, very little artillery – only the infantry and a battalion of Engineers, (2) hostility of the local populace – no army can fight without the support of the civilians, but here what to talk of the support the civil populace was totally hostile, supporting the Indians by providing them with the crucial intelligence needed by them, (3) poor communications and logistics – no reinforcements or arms and equipment could be supplied from West Pakistan. India had stopped the over flights since February 70 after the clever and clandestine planting of Ganga episode, (4) lack of air cover – the only squadron of the F-86s that we had could not operate as the runway of the only military airport Kurmi Tola had been rendered out of operation by the Indians bombing it incessantly. If anything, under such impossible conditions, it goes to the credit of the army that it could fight for over nine months in East Pakistan.
In the second half of the year 1971 those in power – both civil and military – seemed to be suffering from a stupor and behaving like silent spectators waiting helplessly for the catastrophe to fall. I distinctly remember Major General A Rahim Khan – later Secretary General Defence, while addressing a batch of newly posted two dozen Lt Cols and Majors to East Pakistan saying on or around 11 July 1971 “Gentlemen, the entire administration of the province had collapsed. I have made it stand but only on its knees. Now it will be for you to make it stand and stand it erect.” Having said that the General went on to add, “I have given my word to the Chief (Gen. Yahya) to give me three months for the task, and if I cannot do it, he can — (I murmured under my lip, hang me!) he can – replace me”. I was shocked that the general had equated the stakes simply to his being replaced! There would be nothing in three months to replace him for !! On another occasion Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi – alias Tiger Niazi – the GOC Eastern Command as late as in October 71, before the start of a special briefing to the visiting high powered army team from the GHQ on the latest military situation in East Pakistan, advised his senior staff officers not to depress the visiting generals from the GHQ by giving them the dismal military picture of East Pakistan or ask them for more troops. He quipped, “gentlemen, if they send us more troops – more the merrier, but if they don’t – lesser the better”. With the result that the operational military map on the board showed more of ‘Green’ pins all over the area than the ‘Red’ pins depicting the area under Mukti Bahini control. Whereas the map should have been clustered with the Red pins. The GHQ team returned satisfied about all being hunky-dory in East Pakistan. Similar ‘Sab Achha’ reports kept ema nating from various sectors and parts of East Pakistan to West Pakistan, till the water passed over the head. But by then it was too late for any political solution that the likes of Gen. Farman were advocating from the beginning but being too junior in the army hierarchy were not given due importance. To a few others it was a case of misplaced egoistic valour – not to be dubbed as having been ‘chickened out’ in the army parlance. The true information was not only denied to the common man in West Pakistan but even to those at the helm also.
Handling of the East Pakistan issue at the International level, too, was a fiasco on our part. Not that we did not mobilise any world opinion in our favour, we on the contrary rather alienated them mostly. On the other hand Indira undertook a whirlwind tour of 19 countries in October 1971 propagating the imaginary atrocities against the Bengalis and particularly the Hindus of East Pakistan and yet assuring each one of them that India had no intentions of aggression. Ironically, while she was convincing and canvassing the world powers, her army’s Eastern Command was giving the final touches to the Attack Plan in Fort William at the eastern bank of river Hoogli, Calcutta. Whereas in our case despite Nixon’s more or less ordering Kissinger to ‘do some thing’ their 7th Fleet just passed by the Bay of Bengal without even radioing the customary courtesy good will message or tooting its horns thrice the Navy style. I am personally witn ess to the Chinese repeated enquiries as to what could they do for us, after we had established am emergency radio link with them? But all that we could get from the stupor struck President’s Secretariat at Rawalpindi was, “Just wait, please”. Hopes from the sincere Chinese friends were so high that when the Indian para troopers chuted down over Narain Ganj every one waived them jubilantly taking them to be Chinese coming to our aid! Our Eastern Command had a morbid fear of the Indians capturing a piece of land and passing it on to the Muktis to plant a flag there and declare it to be the Bangla Desh. The Indians would recognise it instantly thus giving birth to Bangla Desh. Consequently the troops were spread in a thin line all along the border that weakened the defence all over. There was no depth, no reserves, no second lines. There was enemy (Indians) in the front and enemy at the back (Muktis).They never realised that it was not the l oss of any territory but the fall of the capital of a country that mattered. It had to be the Warsaw, the Paris, the Moscow, the Berlin and in our case Dacca that until captured the country would not fall. If they had only concentrated all the troops in Dacca, made a fortress out of it and held it for months, which they could do, the East Pakistan story would have been different today. Agreed, the Bangla Desh would have still come into being but instead of taking birth in battle field it would have come into being on a negotiating table. Negotiations by the world powers and probably the UNO itself and Pakistan would not have had to suffer the ignominy of the defeat.
Col. Riaz Jafri (Retd)
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